Witness for the Prosecution outsmarted me. Up until its last ten minutes, it had me convinced that I was watching a well acted and well made, but ultimately undistinguished courtroom drama. Then the final scene hits, with a series of gob-smacking reversals that somehow manage, through the capability of the script, to be completely earned by everything that has come before.
In the stellar cast, Charles Laughton is the standout as ailing lawyer Sir Wilfred Robarts. Despite being in terribly poor health, Robarts can’t resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), war veteran and unemployed inventor, who has been accused of murdering an elderly woman for her money. Vole’s troubles grow when his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), a German woman he met during the war, appears in court as a witness for the prosecution.
Obviously, things aren’t as they seem. Christine must have unseen motives. My expectation of this made me feel a little bored; I could sense a reveal coming, so didn’t think it would be much of a surprise. The performances, while strong (the perpetual struggle between Robarts and his overbearing nurse, Miss Plimsoll, is helped by the fact that she’s played by Laughton’s wife, Elsa Lanchester), couldn’t quite overcome my disinterest. The film is full of humour, but the only line I particularly liked was Robarts’ “I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.”
However, the genius of this script (based on Agatha Christie’s play and added to by Billy Wilder) is not just that Christine’s trick is a surprise, but that she’s not the only character who’s hiding something. More than that still, the way the characters react to their new knowledge manages to be surprising as well. And yet the reveals don’t conflict with what we have seen of the characters so far, especially since the performances work either way, whether they were being honest or otherwise.
Witness for the Prosecution’s ending doesn’t just redeem the film, it makes the entire two hour experience worth embarking upon. One of the characters exclaims, “I suspected something but not that! Never that!” and the highest compliment I can give this film I that it made me feel exactly the same way.